SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Neh 8:2-4. 5-6. 8-10; Ps 18:8-10. 15; Eph 2:19-22; Lk 19:1-10 ]
As we gather to dedicate our restored Cathedral this evening, we too can share the sentiments of the Israelites who gathered to thank God for the rebuilding of the ruined wall of Jerusalem. We read that “the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.” Why were they in tears? This was because they could not believe their eyes that God could be so merciful to them, to inspire the pagan King of Persia not just to send his governor, Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem but even provided them financial and logistic help. It was unthinkable that such a thing was possible. But it happened and now the walls were restored.
So too, the restoration of this Cathedral was a very daunting task. This is because the Cathedral, being the Mother Church, has no parishioners to support the renovation efforts, as her children are all over Singapore. As such, the restoration of this Cathedral had to depend largely on the generosity of Catholics all over Singapore, poor and rich. If not the fact that the bulk of the funds came from the reserves of our parishes and some big benefactors, we would never have been able to collect enough to fund the restoration! For this we want to thank God. Many also came forward to help by offering their professional advice and services in all ways. Without these generous people and their love for the mother Church, this Cathedral would have remained a dilapidated structure, almost like the ruined walls of Jerusalem. Hence we cannot but cry with joy for the work done and the completion of this restoration.
Yet, in spite of the glory and magnificence of this Cathedral, the scripture reminds us that the Church is not a building but an assembly of people who love God and give glory to Him by their lives. The Church is in reality the Household of God, made up of different members but all united in love in Christ because we all share in His adopted sonship, making us all children of our Heavenly Father. This is what St Paul tells us. “You are no longer aliens or foreign visitors: you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household.”
Indeed, in Christ, all barriers have now been broken. St Paul, writing to the Galatians said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) The Church therefore must be inclusive and not exclusive. The Church belongs to all because God is our Father. Indeed, the Church must be careful not to turn anyone away, for that is not what God wants. The Church belongs to all, saints and sinners, rich and poor alike. The Church welcomes all humanity, even those who do not believe in God or in Christ. The Good News is offered to all without exception. Christ, by His death and resurrection, has reconciled humanity into one. Love unites us all.
Consequently, the Church exists first and foremost for her members. The Church as mother, has the role of nurturing members of the family, particularly the young. This is the task of all mothers. So as mother Church, she is concerned about the faith of her children. As mother, she gives birth to new members and continues to nurture them particularly through the Word of God and the sacraments. We read in today’s first reading how Ezra, the scribe, proclaimed and preached the Word of God to the people so that they could be enlightened and walk the way of the Lord.
But the Church is also for sinners, not just for saints. The Church exists for sinners who seek to find fullness of life. No matter how great a sinner we may be, no one is beyond salvation. In His ministry, Jesus fellowshiped with prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course, we know that tax-collectors were most hated by the Jews because they collaborated with the Roman authorities in collecting taxes that were used not just for political activities but for the building of pagan temples. Most of all, they were profiteering by overcharging their fellow Jews as well. Zacchaeus was not only a tax-collector but a senior tax collector.
Catholics must be careful not to fall into self-righteousness and hypocrisy by complaining like the scribes and Pharisees, “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.” Let us not forget that we are sinners as well and no better than others. We all need conversion of heart; not just those whom we deem to be sinners. This was partially why the Israelites cried after hearing the Word of God read and explained to them. “For the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.” This was because they came to realize how far they were from living the laws of God; and that the destruction of the Temple was principally due to their sinfulness and turning away from God.
The Church is not a matter of right liturgy and solemn worship if our worship of God is not translated to works of charity. Indeed, we cannot call ourselves the Church, the People of God, unless we love all men as Jesus did because the Heavenly Father gives the rain to all alike. The Church has a preferential option for the poor, the marginalized and the suffering. It is not enough to keep the celebration of God’s love to ourselves but we are called to share our joy with others. Hence, in the first reading, the people were instructed to “go, eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send a portion to the man who has nothing prepared ready.” The proclamation of the gospel is not just words and doctrines but a sharing with the poor, the hungry and those in need. The Church cannot ever neglect her commitment to alleviating suffering in the world in all its forms. That is why the Church’s works of charity is equal in importance to the worship of God. Jesus makes it clear that we must love the Lord with all our heart, soul and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Eucharist we celebrate is the love of God and we must extend this love in our hearts to our brothers and sisters. For this reason, we have installed the statue of the homeless Jesus in our garden to remind us of our obligation towards the poor. In this cathedral too, we are supplying food to the hungry every Sunday afternoon, and we have reserved a special fund just to help the poor.
But the poor today are not simply the materially poor. This might be so in many poor and underdeveloped countries. In Singapore, we still have those who are materially poor but the majority are poor in love, poor in meaning and purpose. Many who are rich and successful live empty, lonely and meaningless lives. Life has no meaning when we do not have a purpose. When we have made enough money to see us through in this life, money becomes useless. It is just a number. How much money do we need for food, clothing, accommodation, transport and medical care? We cannot take the money with us anywhere. Those of us who have millions of dollars will never be able to use all of it for ourselves. They would be left for someone else to use. So many of us are like Zacchaeus. We are successful and have everything we need and more. But food and pleasure cannot give us real happiness in life unless our soul and spirit are quenched. The yearning of the soul and the hunger of the heart can only be quenched by love, the love of God and love of our neighbours. Only love that is lasting, God’s love, can fulfill our hunger.
Indeed, for those of us who have found God like Zacchaeus, our lives would be transformed. Ezra told the people, “For this day is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.” With the joy of God in our hearts, we need no longer cling to the things of this world. If our happiness is dependent on just having pleasure in life, we are no better than an animal. Ultimately, we live for meaning, and a purpose; not just for this life but for a life beyond. Only living for something beyond can give us passion and hope beyond this world. Thus, when Zacchaeus found the Lord, he was so filled with joy, peace and love because for once, he knew he was loved unconditionally. When we have love, we no longer cling to earthly things. This is not to say that money and things are not important but they are no longer ends in themselves but a means to promote love and joy through our sharing with others. In turn, we are filled with the joy and love of God.
So as we celebrate this dedication service today, let us give thanks to God. Let us pay attention to the Word of God like the Israelites did. When Ezra opened the book “all the people raised their hands and answered, ‘Amen! Amen!’; then they bowed down and, face to the ground, prostrated themselves before the Lord.” Let it not be just an external expression of our faith in God but a commitment to living out the Word of God in our lives. With the psalmist we say, “Your words are spirit, Lord, and they are life. The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul. The rule of the Lord is to be trusted; it gives wisdom to the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart. The command of the Lord is clear; it gives light to the eyes.”
In this way, we are as St Paul says, “part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone. As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit.” As we align ourselves with the Lord and build our lives on Him, we will truly become the living Temple of God so that through us, others can encounter God in our love and humble, selfless service to all, regardless of race, language or religion.